… not that it’s a bad thing. Except when it is.
As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of religion is codification and context for spiritual experiences. I acknowledge that others focus more on community or other things that arise from it. However, most religions find their seed in the experiences of those who have founded them, and the rites and practices of those faiths are ones whose intent is to bring you more in line with the spiritual principles and powers of that faith.
Some religious movements reject spiritual experiences outright, not recognizing the powerful experiences that lead to the formation of their religions in the first place. This is something that I’ve seen more and more in the Pagan reconstruction faiths; a rejection of the lived experiences of modern practitioners in favors of ancient narrative. In some cases a dialogue between the two is permissible; in others, forbidden.
As a polytheist and spirit worker my primary concern is building good relationships. Sometimes, even often, modern people discover that the ancient patterns of those relationships are not working for them, and indeed not what the Gods are asking for. When the mindset discourages people from listening to their lived experiences with the Powers, they either work to ignore their experiences (which means on a certain level ignoring those beings) or they leave the oppressive structure that does not allow for what their Gods and spirits want.
Creating a metaphysical model with which to contextualize and negotiate spiritual experiences requires compromise. In most models to believe one thing is to disbelieve another; to be true to the path is to walk no other roads, and signs are less about interpretation than they are about assigned values (presumably origination in someone’s interpretation). There is a lot of value to it; I’ve discovered that working within premade models helps with working with beings that are associated with these models. In short, tradition can help you get closer to and talk to the Gods.
Except for all of the times that it doesn’t. Except for the person whom the traditional rites provide no spiritual benefit to. Some might said that this is due to miasma or spiritual impurity and that may apply sometimes. Generally I believe it is because not everyone is built to embrace the mindsets that create these models, and their spiritual richness suffers as a result of not having alternatives.
The Gods come to us regardless. Some of us form relationships with them based on the old models. Sometimes we don’t want the old models. Sometimes the Gods don’t, either. When someone is lead by a deep spiritual truth and the establishment works to quash it because it doesn’t match archaelogical record, the religious establishment has failed its membership.
If you look across the online Pagan community you will find a variety of healthy, affirming, and powerful spiritual relationships. You will see votary and cultic priestesses, you will see godspouses, you will see people who work with Gods in primarily a magical fashion, and for those of us who have been doing it for a while, you will often find several different types of relationship within a single person.
If the Gods don’t like how a particular relationship is going, they will make it clear in some way, and if we don’t respond that’s our own problem. The Gods won’t lose people because they fail to follow your tradition; I know many atheist artists who seem to be guided by the Gods; I don’t think they need our worship or belief. They certainly don’t need us to slavishly follow ancient patterns when those patterns don’t work for either side.
The Gods don’t need your damn religion; they will keep interacting with us when they want to and how they want to. Given that religions become tools of social control more than expressions of spiritual experience over time, the people who need the religion the most are the people who benefit the most by it being a certain way and they may not have the best interest of all of their members in mind. It’s not just spiritual experiences that are a problem here either; institutionalized discrimination and bigotry also accrete in religious organizations and drive people off.
I’m friends with a great many ex-Heathens and ex-Wiccans and ex-other things who have left partly because their powerful personal spiritual experiences affected their lives in ways that their religious tradition was not prepared to deal with. I know many who have left because of institutionalized bigotry within those faiths as well. They love their Gods and honor them no less.
So keep in mind that the Gods don’t need your religion to have relationships with their people. Turn your eyes to the people leaving and listen to their words rather than trying to deflect or talk over them. Consider what might be driving people away. The Gods will be fine if any given person is no longer a Heathen or what have you. The religion and its structure will not, and will suffer for the loss of insight and diversity.